I wrote this blog after spending three months working at various vineyards in New Zealand and interrogating the most experienced workers about the process of wine making.
The biggest difference between good wine and bad wine isn’t age. There’s wine that sells for $100 as soon as it comes off the assembly line, and it’s grown from the same grapes that the same vineyard sells for $9 a bottle. Expensive wines aren’t made from some rare super grape either, and cheap wines aren’t made from inferior grapes.The big difference in quality comes from how those grapes were treated during the growing process.
At the beginning of the growing process every vine is treated the same. They’re planted in long, straight rows. A wooden post as tall as a grown man sticks out of the ground between every four or five plants. Three or four metal wires run perpendicularly between/along the posts. The reason those posts and wires are there is because grape vines aren’t trees. They’re vines, obviously. So left on their own they’ll just fall to the ground and grow in the dirt, but that would ruin the grapes. So worker have to come through the rows of grape plants and tie them to the bottom wire when the grape plants are tall enough to reach. Then, as the vines get taller and bushier they’ll naturally grab onto the higher wires if their shoots happen to touch them, but a lot of the shoots just fall back down to the ground. So at some point human beings have to walk down every row in the vineyard and pick up all the low hanging vines and tuck them up through the wires.
This doesn’t just keep the vines out of the dirt. It also gives the leaves maximum exposure to sunlight, and since grapes tend to grow towards the bottom of vines and not the tops that means when the vines are stretched upwards then most of the grape clusters will grow conveniently along the bottom wire where they can be picked without having to dig through tangled vines. There’s still work to be done before the grapes are picked though, and how that work is done will determine whether the grapes will yield premium or cheap wine.
The leaves on the grape plants need sunlight to nourish the grapes. The grapes themselves also need direct exposure to sunlight to ripen properly, but the leaves cover the grapes. So the leaves around the grapes need to be removed from the vines, but you need to take off as few leaves as possible or else the whole plant won’t get enough light to nourish its fruit. You also need to remove those leaves without damaging the grapes. There are at least three ways to do this:
Some vineyards use sheep. If you put sheep in a vineyard when the grapes are young and sour the sheep will avoid eating them, but they’ll eat all the leaves around the grapes, and since the rest of the vines and leaves are too high for the sheep to reach they pick off just about the right amount of leaves. Inevitably though, the sheep will end up damaging a few grapes and possibly eating too many leaves.
If 100 rows of vines in a vineyard are reserved for making cheap wine then a farmer can just drive a tall, skinny tractor up and down the rows that sucks or blows all the leaves off. It’s a cheap and quick method, but it damages the grapes.
The only tool in the universe capable of performing the precision task of delicately removing just the right amount of leaves is a human being. So they’re sent into the vineyards to spend all day, every day in green, roofless hallways shuffling sideways analyzing the bottoms of these walls looking for leaves that cover up the grapes and pulling them off while being careful not to bruise the grapes or remove too many leaves.
It doesn’t sound difficult to spend 9 hours walking sideways pulling leaves off of vines, and it’s true that there are more difficult jobs in the world, but leaf plucking is a unique form of torture, as every job on a vineyard is in its own way. The leaves grow just low enough that an average sized person has to bend over slightly to grab them. This doesn’t hurt if you do it once, but if you do it for 50 hours a week you’ll be in agony. That’s a fact. Once your back starts hurting from bending forward you can switch to bending your knees so it looks like you’re doing the limbo dance, except instead of going under the wall you go sideways…forever. Eventually that’s going to hurt too. When that happens you can just fall down on your knees and pick out the leaves at chest height. If you’ve lost the will to get back up you can waddle sideways on your knees and/or crawl down a whole row that way, but you don’t have knee pads. So your knees get beat up on the rocks and twigs. And the ground is covered in a thousand doses of weed killer. So you don’t want what’s down there to get into the cuts, scrapes and blisters in your hands and knees.
After the leaves are plucked and all the grapes are exposed along the bottom of the rows you can walk along them and see where bunches of grapes are growing at odd angles and smashing into each other. Those need to be separated and pruned. You’ll also find other bunches are growing on tiny, leafless branches that won’t be able to nourish the grapes to ripeness. Those need to be removed so the plant can nourish the grapes that are left. Sometimes there’s just too many grapes. If you remove all these extra grapes then the remaining ones will grow plump and sweet. If you don’t remove these extra grapes you’ll still get some good bunches, but you’ll also get a lot of small, under-ripe sour bunches. If simply drive a tractor down the row and harvest all the small, vinegary grapes along with the ripe, sugary ones together you’ll end up with bottom shelf hobo wine.
If your customer expects wine so pure that it doesn’t give them a headache then millions of people all over the world need to pour into their local vineyards and sacrifice the days of their youth (and/or their “golden years”) in purgatory staring at bunches of grapes, studying them, counting them, thinking about how and why to remove them so that all that’s left at harvest time are big, juicy, sugary grapes.
Once the plucking and snipping is done then all those ripe, juicy grapes will look like a free gourmet buffet to birds. If you’ve already invested months of wages into having your grape vines groomed then you can’t afford to give your crop away to the birds. If you’re making cheap wine you might be able to afford to lose a few grapes, but if you’re making premium wine you need total security. One way you can keep birds away is by buying an air gun that’s hooked up to a tank and makes a loud blast that sounds like a gunshot every minute or so. But that doesn’t keep all the birds away all the time. Since it’s not cost effective to build a glass roof over a thousand acre vineyard, the next best thing you can do is send workers back into the wailing walls and cover the plants with nets.
Until someone invents an efficient way to put nets over plants workers will have to spend the best days of their irreplaceable lives rolling gigantic spools of nets down rows 50+ yards long in the premium section of most vineyards. Each row will have two nets, one on either side. Then two people, one on either side, will take their net and lift it over the plant where they’ll take a little plastic clip (like the ones that hold bread bags closed) and clip the two nets together. They’ll also need to bend over and reach underneath the green wall to grab the net hanging on the other side so they can pin them together underneath so birds can’t fly up through the bottom of the net. A lot of care needs to be taken to make sure the vines are wrapped up so tight that a bird the size of a cell phone can’t get in, and you can be sure they’ll try. So the workers need to end up putting five to nine clips above and below every plant. They’ll have to use more clips to patch up the holes that have inevitably been ripped in net. In nine hours they’ll go through thousands of clips. So they have to carry a big pouch full with them. It takes a lot of thought and attention to detail to clip the nets together properly. It also takes a strong back, but if you’ve been working in a vineyard for very long you’ve already got a pretty strong back.
Even with a strong back you’re still going to go home with sore muscles every day, especially if you’re getting paid by how fast you work. As a general rule vineyard workers get paid as little as possible and get as few benefits or breaks as the law will allow in whatever country a vineyard happens to be in, and some places are worse than others. Sometimes, instead of getting minimum wage, farmers will have the workers play their own version of the Hunger Games. In this version the contestants get paid a few cents for every plant they pluck, trim and/or cover with nets. Whoever pushes themselves the farthest past the brink of human endurance and takes the least amount of breaks and cuts the most corners will be rewarded with slightly more than minimum wage. Everybody else will get less than minimum wage, and I guess that’s the point. The only two groups of people who really win these Hunger Games are the vineyard owners (who win a new mansion) and the rich people who drink pretentiously expensive wine (who win a sweet taste in their mouth for a few minutes). You could say the vineyard workers win a job, but it’s the job of a disposable slave. You would have to be completely morally bankrupt to call the work vineyard laborers do for they pay they receive a good opportunity. It’s not an opportunity. It’s a trap. It’s a waste of life.
This raises an interesting question. Who would willingly agree to this trap? Who would take seasonal work that pays as little as possible leaving you jobless halfway through the year with as little money as possible? There’s all types, and most of them are more or less homeless. That’s why they can move with the season, and that’s why they’re desperate enough to put up with being treated like an animal.
You could say, “Yeah, but at least they’re getting paid.” The thing about that is, vineyards are making enough money for the owners to buy mansions and sports cars. If there’s that much money left over after operating costs then there’s enough money to pay the workers enough to see the dentist. If vineyards truly aren’t profitable enough to pay its workers more than slave wages then that means premium means wine can only ever exist in a society where income inequality is so bad that the poor are desperate enough to accept being treated and paid like disposable slaves.
Either way, the main ingredient that goes into making premium wine (and which is largely missing in cheap wine) is the tears of the poor. The two main ingredients that goes into making cheap wine (and which is largely missing in premium wine) are vinegar and pollution.
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